Monday, March 30, 2020

A Conversation with Stanley Chen

By Min Chen


Stanley Chen is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and columnist. Initially released in 2013, his debut novel Waste Tide was translated to English by Ken Liu and published by Tor Books in 2019. A prominent talent in China’s science fiction community, Chen’s short stories have appeared in MIT Technology Review, Hong Kong Literature, and Science Fiction World. He is also the founder of Thema Mundi Studio, which manages his IPs and develops science fiction content.


Waste Tide was named ‘The Best Science Novel’ at the 2013 Global Chinese Sci-fi Nebula Award and is the winner of the 2019 Golden Globefish Most Valuable Sci-Fi IP Award. Chen graduated from Peking University with a degree in Chinese Literature and Film Art.


When did your interest in dystopian fiction begin and did you know that your debut novel would be of this genre?


It started from 1984 and Brave New World–two classic works of dystopian fiction. This was back in university. Before that, I mostly read optimistic, golden age science fiction.


I didn’t know that I was going to write a dystopian novel. I just wanted to find the most proper way to tell the story.


What inspired the world that you created in Waste Tide?


Back in 2011, I visited my hometown, Shantou, and met my childhood friend, who mentioned a small town about 60 kilometers away from where we lived: Guiyu. Apparently, the American company he worked for had been trying to convince the local government to recycle e-waste, but some local authorities were standing in the way.


“It’s difficult,” he said, a little too mysteriously, “the situation over there, is…complicated.”


Something about his speech caught the attention of the sensitive writer in me. Intuitively, I realized there must be a deeper story to uncover. I took a mental note of Guiyu, and it later became the seed for the book.


Do you consider yourself to be a futurist?


If you define ‘futurist’ as someone who’s always seeking answers to the real issues and open to all possibilities, then you can call me a futurist. For me, it has nothing to do with predictions or being a prophet.


Waste Tide deals with themes including capitalism, class struggle, and environmental degradation. What would you like readers to take away from the book?


Waste is profoundly changing our society. The input cannot predict the output. Our daily, mundane world always treats waste and garbage as a hidden structure, as the whole ecosystem is beyond our sights. We want to maintain the glorious ‘outfit’ of contemporary life.


Unfortunately, when someone takes advantage of something, others have to suffer for it. Just like class distinctions and economic exploitation, the international geopolitics of e-waste recycling comes down to power. The system must continuously be constructed or reshaped through complex engagements of mediators.


We have to see the reality. We all benefit greatly from the fast-developing information society. Higher speeds, newer applications, and more compelling technologies have brought us a lot of opportunities to improve our efficiency and well-being.


Meanwhile, the growing ‘throwaway culture’ is leading us toward the trend of disposing things and buying new ones, rather than keeping and repairing them. It seems to be a status symbol and social recognition for ourselves, but it only generates more and more e-waste and damages our planet.


We have to make changes, starting from ourselves, and elevate awareness to the whole of society and all the stakeholders.


What do you make of the notion that many elements of translated works are lost in translation?


It’s true and unavoidable. But what I care about is not what’s been lost during the process of translating, but what’s been added and reinvented afterward. There’s also a very interesting power dynamic among the cultures of languages in an imaginary community.


In your opinion, how has the Chinese literary landscape evolved, and what do you anticipate for the next decade?


From my perspective, the discourse and hierarchy of the Chinese literary landscape switched dramatically from an academia-centric one to a marketing and media-centric one over the past two decades. It has become more complicated and commercialized.


Meanwhile, it got rid of revolution literature and the realism tradition to become more diverse.


In the next decade, I am expecting a more complex interaction of literature, technology, and ideology. There will be no so-called ‘mainstream literature.’ Decentralization will happen in the literary arena, and a lot of sub-genres will emerge. Sub-culture communities will worship their own canons and classics.


What does being a writer mean to you?


It means I have the privilege of sitting at home, doing nothing for the whole day, and claim that I am really hard-working.


Can you share a bit about what you’re working on now? 


I am working on the sequel to Waste Tide and a collection of stories that take place in 2041 with a space opera-style world-building. I have a lot of parallel projects going on.


Chen will be attending the 19th annual Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which will take place from November 1 to 10, 2019. He will be speaking on the ‘The Looming Shadow of Dystopia’ panel on November 4 and will be holding three workshops over the course of the festival. Visit [] for more information.

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